|All Things Wildly Considered|
Little bit smug with myself yesterday. I go horse riding on Thursdays, out at Cotswold Trail Ride. It's a wonderful place, where love can be bought for the price of a packet of polo mints. But it's taken me a few weeks to learn the important fact that I need to write my 1k a day before I go, because, by the time I get back, I'm a wreck. Nothing like a canter through the forest, an overdose of fresh air, and a hot shower to put you to sleep.
I really struggled the past couple of weeks, trying to write when I got back. It's brought a lovely sense of achievement getting the words out the way, then enjoying the rest of the day. Plus, a double sense of achievement to sail past the 40k mark.
In another week-and-a-half I'll hit my next golden number. That gives me about 20,000 words to really up the octane of the plot and let my imagination run wild before I need to start reining it in and thinking about the wind-down. The story just keeps expanding out in front of me. I have a rough sense of direction, but no idea where it will end. At this point, a conclusion seems inconceivable.
I talked the other day about dark things. Right now, I'd like to share a couple of passages of blood and lust. Just short snippets that I've particularly enjoyed writing. As before, extremely rough.
The first comes after the two main characters have managed to murder one another's best friends. Always an awkward conversation...
He did not come to me until much later.
I lay on my bed, with my knees tucked up to my chin, holding myself. There had been nothing I could have done for Shahab. I knew my father, and I knew my family. We were cruel people, there is no denying. Once it was in my father’s head to torment someone, or to bankrupt them, or to take what they once owned, there was nothing could be said to change his mind. Though it was rare that he took against one so young, and rarer still that he should choose to torture me.
There was more to it than that, though.
Something deep, and dark, and desirous, which walked in the form of Vachon.
I sensed his shadow fall across my room before I heard his silk-stockinged feet tread softly towards me; agile as a cat, light as a feather. The bed depressed as he sat, and then laid, beside me. His hand rested gently on my shoulder and I turned towards him.
By the light of the moon, he could see that my cheeks were stained with tears.
“Why?” I asked, my throat hoarse. “Why did you do it?”
“You took something of mine that was very precious,” he replied. There was no reproach in his voice, he simply stated it as though stating the answer to a mathematical problem. “It was only fair that I took something of yours.”
He wore a different mask to the hook-billed Pantalone. This was a mask of pure, polished ebony. Rubies encrusted the eyes, and the upper lips were formed of brass. Golden but cold, a reversal of my golden-eyed love with the warm lips.
I felt as though I were about to cry again.
“Hush now,” he said, reaching his hand to my ear and plucking from it a beautiful white butterfly. “Let us talk no more of things that hurt.”
I couldn’t help but smile as the delicate insect beat its wings and took flight in the dark.
“Now we are both alone,” I told him.
“Everybody on this earth is alone,” he replied. “Company is just an illusion.”
“I did not feel alone when I was with Shahab.”
“Nor I, with Ishya. We had travelled far together.”
“I am sorry for what I did.”
“I am not.” His eyes held mine and I swear I saw a flash of fire there. “From now on, you shall call me Eirik. I will not answer you otherwise.” I opened my mouth to protest, and he placed a finger across my lips to silence me. “What you did was a very stupid thing. You and I are too alike to be parted but, from this day forth, I want you to think upon your actions. I will stay with you, and I will be your friend, but with that you must always remember the loss of that animal’s life. It died for your thoughtless fancy, and your family's murderous, unthinking rage.”
It took me a moment to regain my voice. “I did not put her in that cage.”
“Why?” I struggled to sit upright as he laughed.
“Your tutor was right, politics is not your forte.”
This time I did cry. Confusion and shame melted down my face. I bit the back of my hand, trembling with anger at what I did not understand.
“Oh, hush, hush,” Eirik said, rising and holding me close.
I sobbed into his shoulder and he let me. When I eventually calmed, I drew back. He waved his hand across my mouth and I found there to be a lump of halvaye on my tongue. Its sweet, comforting flavour reminded me of childhood and brought fresh tears to my eyes.
“Afsar, your innocence is charming.”
I chewed quickly and then swallowed so that I could breathe more easily.
“You have outgrown your lessons,” he continued. “Will you let me teach you?”
“What could you possibly teach me?” I snapped, regaining a little courage.
“How the world works.”
Again, he held me with his eyes and I felt a steady calm descend. The death of my first love had come as a shock to me. For the second time in my life I had known what it was to be utterly powerless. My future had been dictated by others. Only, unlike before, the person who had decided my fate this time was willing to offer it back to me.
“Good,” he smiled. “Here, dance with me.”
“Good,” he smiled. “Here, dance with me.”
He stood from the bed and held out his hand, pulling me up to face him. I did not understand what he meant at first, as he held me close and positioned my hand around his waist, holding the other aloft. I was about to protest, when the sound of a string quartet filled the room, echoing from the marble walls and floating across the tiled floor.
We began to move, slowly at first, and then a little faster, swooning and sighing in a circle, our pale reflections moonlit in the mirror. Around and around we went, ink silhouettes in a zoetrope.
This second extract is from quite early on in the story. The female protagonist's father has many wives. They are devoted to him, but love is not always repaid with happiness...
As Heaven’s tears drummed down against the acer trees, I thought that I heard another sound. It was faint at first. I thought perhaps a peacock crying. As I listened, it came again, and then again, and I realised that it was the sound of a woman.
I wrapped a second shawl around my shoulders and set off down the hall. At a certain point, the covered section of my own rooms were separated from the main square. I had to brave the rain to dash between the overhang to the door opposite. It was only a very short distance, but the sky was bleeding heavily enough to soak my headscarf.
Passing through the corridors and rooms of the main palace, the face of every servant confirmed my suspicion.
It was Sarvar.
It could only be her.
Sarvar was my father’s second-newest wife. She had been with our family for less than a year, and had fallen pregnant almost immediately. She was not the prettiest, that was mother Azin, and she was not the most practical, for that was Arezoo. She was not even the most ambitious, for no one other than Ezzat could fill that esteemed position. She was simply Sarvar, and none of us knew her.
As I approached her chamber on the East side of the palace, where most of the wives at Mazandaran lived, the scent of sweat and frankincense became overpowering. For a moment, I thought to turn back. Then another scream came, and I found myself drawn.
She lay there, on a damp mattress in the centre of the room. Arezoo was beside her, and Bousseh, the best midwife in the North of Iran. She had delivered me, Mahmoud and Fakhr. My father had enough wives to fill his courtyard thrice over. Whenever one went into labour, it was Bousseh they cried out for. Her face looked like leather left out over winter and dried in the sun: coffee brown and thickly wrinkled. Yet her hands were as soft as Chinese silk, and she sewed stitches finer than the coats of the richest princes.
Şelale knelt by her side, a bowl of water and strips of clean rag to hand. There were perhaps as many women in the room as caged birds in my father’s private garden. In the far corner, I was surprised to see Ezzat. She was resting against the wall, crouched on her heels, her black maghnaeh causing her round face to float like a moon in the shadows.
There was a strange weight to the air. Usually the women of my father’s harem spent hours before their mirrors, each one trying to outdo the other, vying for his attention. Their cheeks shone red with rouge as though they had run all the way from Sari to be by his side; their eyebrows drawn thick with kohl, resembling fat caterpillars crawling across their foreheads, dipped in the middle where my brother, Mahmoud, likely stamped upon them.
That night, none of his wives wore paint on their faces. Not because my father was away in Tehran, they would not have set aside their rivalry for that, but because this was a place only for women. More than that, it was a place where things were happening that only women could understand. However much my many mothers pecked amongst themselves, however many feathers they plucked or wings they clipped to get the cock’s attention, each of them knew that one day they would end up in a room just like this. Legs spread wide on a soaking mattress.
They would end up here because of him.
Even Ezzat understood that. Somewhere in the slow-moving waters of her mind, she still held to a sense of how different things might have been. She had triumphed, born him a son. Her only failure had been timing, six years and nine sons too late to be the heir apparent. My father’s loins spurted children like fish leap from a stream. Like his wives, the later children were left to jostle amongst themselves. It’s a good thing their mothers remembered their names, for no one else ever would.
Sarvar’s scream brought me back to myself.
“Mop her brow,” Bousseh instructed, changing places with Şelale so that she could push her fingers up between Sarvar’s legs, feeling for the crown of the child.
“Afsar, what are you doing here?” Mother Arezoo came towards me, arm outspread to block my view.
“Let her watch,” Bousseh called over her shoulder. “It is best she knows what to expect.”
Arezoo hesitated for a moment. I could see that she wasn’t sure, so I gave a smile to show that I was alright and that I wanted to stay.
She nodded and returned her attention to Sarvar. The woman’s head was bare. Hair plastered itself to her face in wavy lines, like newly hatched snakes escaping over her skin.
She screamed again and Bousseh waved her free hand, motioning Arezoo to hold a bowl of water to the woman’s lips. She tried to sip, then doubled forward with gritted teeth, sending the bowl clattering to the floor.
Without a word, Arezoo collected it up and left the room to refill it.
Eventually we heard the call to Fajr, the first prayer of the day. The sound of the muezzin’s voice rose and fell as he greeted the dawn. Although it was still dark outside, we knew that it would soon be light.
At first, none of us moved, the thought rising within us as one. We had been absorbed in our task, none of us thought to bring food. It was too late now to prepare, and we could not bring ourselves to eat in front of Sarvar. She grew paler by the hour, her groans weaker as she tried so hard to push.
I waited to see what the mothers would decide. Would Bousseh remove her fingers from Sarvar’s legs, wash them clean and prostrate herself, or would we silently agree to hold our morning prayer for later in the day?
The decision was made for us. With a blood-chilling cry, Sarvar pushed and the baby’s head appeared. I was frozen to the spot, hardly believing my eyes, that something so large could suddenly appear where once only folds of flesh had been.
It happened far quicker than any of us expected. One moment there was a white ball rimmed with red, the next an entire face: eyes, lips, chin. Then a thick rope, like a string of animal intestine. She screamed again, and something extraordinary happened. She began to convulse. Head thrown back, teeth tight as a wall of ivory. I saw Bousseh falter, unable in that split second to decide which end of the woman to attend to. She chose the head, slopping a sodden cloth across Sarvar’s brow and speaking quickly.
Even I could see that it was the wrong decision. Me, with no knowledge of how these things should progress. As she mopped away at Sarvar’s waxen face, the child between her legs began to turn an unusual shade of blue.
I looked around to see whether the other women had noticed, and caught the gaze of Mother Ezzat. She was still sat, pressed against the far corner. From that place, it was impossible that she could have seen the things I saw, yet, as though watching the reflection in my eyes, she stood, came quietly forward, removed her maghnaeh, and draped it over the half-born infant.
The room fell silent, as though the veil of death itself had fallen. Sarvar made no more sound. On a table set back from the bed stood a silver bowl filled with sacred clay, ready for the baby to suck from its mother’s finger. Next to that, a safety pin, endowed with all the blessings of the ayatollah.
It had not managed to ward off this evil.
“Take Afsar to her room,” Arezoo said, turning to Şelale.
We walked back without a word. Neither of us ran between buildings to avoid the rain. I arrived in my room soaked to the skin.
As Şelale began to undress me, replacing my sodden fabric with soft, dry cotton, I could not help but ask her:
“What will they do with the baby?”
“Hush now çocukcağız. Don’t think of that.”
“I want to know.”
With a sigh, she sat me down on my bed and began to comb out my hair.
“They will push it back inside her. So they can be buried together.”
“Why didn’t Bousseh save it?”
She paused for a moment, brush held in midair.
“She didn’t try.”
“She has delivered enough children to know what is possible and what is not. Please, do not upset yourself.”
“I’m not upset.”
Şelale was quiet for a moment, listening to the sound of the sky beating against the roof. “They will light candles now, and stay with her until the sun is up. They will sing the Prayer of Fear so that she will not be afraid. Then they will take her to the mosque.”
“What shall you do?”
“I will stay here as long as you need me.”
“I do not need you.”
She placed the brush in her lap.
“Then I shall return to help wash the body.”
I waited until she had gone before admitting my lie. It did upset me. Each time I closed my eyes, all I could see was that grotesque skull, white as bone against her brown thighs. The smell of salt and blood and excrement blurred together like paint in a cup of water.
It made my skin prickle.
That weight to the air that I had felt on entering the room. I knew what that was now. It spoke of the presence of Death. Allah had abandoned her bedside long ago, leaving the way clear for shayatin, those devils which feast upon vulnerable spirits. He had forsaken her, for what reason?
The rain eased beyond my window; Sarvar’s screams replaced by the sharp ululation of my grieving mothers. Even as a very small girl I had understood that sound. It is so loud and so keen as to cause all heads to hurt, all eyes to note that you are crying out for the loss of your sister, or your brother, or your child. You are marking the passing of one of Allah’s creation with the flicker of your tongue and the air in your lungs.
You are seen to be good in your grief.
Meanwhile, in their heart of hearts, I am sure that it was not only Ezzat who was smiling peacefully at the loss of another rival. If only, I could hear her think, more births would end this way. Perhaps then my father would count his losses and content himself with those wives he already had, those who had proven their ability to take his seed and bear his children without the expense of a funeral.
And what of the child? Stuffed back into its mother’s belly, wrapped in white and plunged into the earth.
That fragile skull, red with blood, brown skin rent apart. Had it felt anything? When weighed in proportion, had that brief moment of panic and pain been worse than a lifetime of such? We shall never know.
I did not pity the creature.